The school board of a Virginia school has decided to take Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out of its curriculum because someone complained about the use of the term “nigger.” This district isn’t alone. Since its publication in 1888, the book has garnered a lot of criticism, not just for that term but for the cruel and racist life it shows in the Antebellum south. It is probably the most banned book in America.
Banning this book is the equivalent of banning the Declaration of Independence, as I will explain.
But first, a precise and accurate quote by Ernest Hemingway: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a hilariously satiric tale of a vagabond boy (Huck Finn) who travels America with Jim, an escaped slave who is looking for freedom and to then buy his family from their slave owners. The book is told by Huck in his common dialect. It is like stepping back in time to hear Huck and Jim and others of that epoch speak.
At its core, what is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn about? Oh, certainly it is a sendup of hypocritical values and the folks who have them. It is also the gradual opening of Huckleberry’s mind to the reality of what his society is – a society where he is one of the lowest of the low, being a poor, abused white kid whose father is a truly evil man, and it also tells the story of an individual, Jim, who is even lower on the social scale, if he is even on the social scale – because Jim is a slave, a piece of property, in a world that has little compassion for his station.
How were blacks viewed in those days?
When Huck is making up a story for Aunt Sally, he weaves a tale of a shipwreck he experienced.
Aunt Sally asks “‘Good gracious, anybody hurt?’”
Huck’s response: “‘No’m, killed a nigger.’”
Aunt Sally sums it up: “‘Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.’”
There you have the southern society’s attitude perfectly stated. No people were killed because a “nigger” isn’t actually a part of the “people” world. Huck doesn’t think twice about his statement nor does Aunt Sally. But the reader certainly does!
In the pivotal scene of the book, where perhaps the greatest American literary line was ever penned, Huck struggles with his conscience over helping Jim to escape. He has been taught that slaves are not actually people and that Jim is the property of someone else. Huck knows, because he’s been well-taught, that helping a slave escape is terribly, terribly wrong:
“So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter – and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
“Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
“ HUCK FINN
“I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking.
“And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.
“I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.
“It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’” – and tore it up.”
This is the moment – “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – when Huckleberry Finn, a prisoner of society’s false notions of racial inequality epitomized by the institution of slavery, makes his personal declaration of independence and frees himself. This young man is willing to go to Hell, to eternally burn for his sin of seeing Jim as a real person, a friend, a mentor. Huckleberry Finn was compelled to make the morally correct decision. Yes, he has broken with the past. He will go to Hell but in reality he saves his soul.
In this scene, Huck Finn represents America at its best.
Now to the schools and libraries that have banned the book; to the individuals who only read the word “nigger” in the book without any idea of why it is used and of how the reader should actually feel as the book progresses, I can only say I wish there were a Huck Finn in your conscience; a person who could tear up the letter of your mistaken notions and your sad desire to squash one of the greatest books of all time.
[Read my new book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!]